In 1603, shortly after King James VI inherited his late cousin’s throne, a London publisher printed a pamphlet offering his English readership Certayne Matters Concerning the Realme of Scotland. It was part of a upsurge of interest in all matters Scottish, as the northern realm suddenly became of pressing domestic importance to England’s inhabitants.
The pamphlet was a reprint of a tract originally published in Edinburgh nine years previously, and it takes it upon itself to list a range of different facets of Scottish land and life, very much in the manner of the early modern genre of chorography. By far the most enjoyable part of the pamphlet is its final section, ‘A Memorial of the Most Rare and Wonderful Things in Scotland’ – so, for St Andrew’s Day, here’s that section, lightly modernised and with a few editorial glosses. It focuses on natural wonders, on dogs and eagles, lochs and islands, rocks and springs. It’s both a contribution to the folklore of the country, and an attempt to list local marvels for the curious visitor from elsewhere. And it’s great fun – I especially love the idea that mountain hares were once a common sight – allegedly – around Holyrood park!
A MEMORIAL OF THE MOST rare and wonderful things in Scotland.
Among many Commodities, that Scotland hath common with other Nations, it … is beautified with some rare gifts in itself, wonderful to consider, which I have thought good not to obscure (from the good Reader) as for example.
In Orkney, besides the great store of sheep that feed upon the main land thereof, the Ewes are of such fecundity, that at every lambing time, they produce at least two, and ordinarily three. There be neither venomous or ravenous beasts bred there, nor do live there, although they be transported thither.
In Shetland, the Iles called Thulae, at the time when the sun enters the Sign of Cancer, for the space of twenty days, there appears no night at all; and among the rocks thereof, grows the delectable Lambre [i.e., amber], called Succinum: Where is also great resort of the beast called the Mertrick [i.e., a marten], the skins whereof are costly furrings.
In Ross, there be great Mountains of Marble, and Alabaster.
In the South of Scotland, specially in the Countries adjacent to England, there is a Dog of marvellous nature, called the Suth-hound; because, when as he is certified by words of art, spoken by his Master, what goods are stolen, whether Horse, sheep, or Neat [i.e., cow]: immediately, he addresseth him suthly [truly] to the sent, and followeth with great impetuosity, through all kind of ground and water, by as many ambages [paths] as the thieves have used, till he attain to their place of residence: By the benefit of the which Dog, the goods are recovered. But now of late, he is called by a new popular name, the Slouth-hound: Because, when as the people do live in sloth and idleness, and neither by themselves, or by the office of a good Herd, or by the strength of a good house, they do preserve their goods from the incursion of thieves and robbers: then have they recourse to the Dog, for reparation of their sloth.
In the West, and North-west of Scotland, there is great repairing of a Fowl, called the Erne [i.e. an eagle – either golden or white-tailed], of a marvellous nature, and the people are very curious and solist [eager] to catch him, whom thereafter they punze [prick, pierce] off his wings, that he shall not be able to fly again. This Fowl is of a huge quantity: and although he be of a ravenous nature, like to the kind of Hawks, and be of that same quality, gluttonous; nevertheless, the people do give him such sort of meat, as they think convenient, and such a great quantity at a time, that he lives contented with that portion, for the space of fourteen, sixteen, or twenty days, and some of them for the space of a Month. The people that do so feed him, do use him for this intent: That they may be furnished with the feathers of his wings, when he doth cast them, for the garnishing of their arrows, either when they are at wars, or at hunting: for these feathers only do never receive rain, or water, as others do, but remain always of a durable estate, and uncorruptible.
In all the Moorland, and Mossland of Scotland, doth resort the black Cock [i.e., black grouse], a fowl of a marvellous beauty, and marvellous bounty: for he is more delectable to eat, then a Capon, and of a greater quantity, clad with three sorts of flesh, of diverse colours, and diverse tastes, but all delectable to the use and nouriture [nourishment] of man.
In the two Rivers of Dee and Don, besides the marvellous plenty of Salmon fishes gotten there, there is also a marvellous kind of shellfish, called the Horse-mussel, of a great quantity: wherein are engendered innumerable fair, beautiful and delectable Pearls, convenient for the pleasure of man, and profitable for the use of Physic [medicine]; and some of them so fair and polished, that they be equal to any mirror of the world. And generally, by the providence of the Almighty God, when dearth and scarcity of victuals do abound in the land, then the fishes are most plentifully taken for support of the people.
In Galloway, the Loch, called Loch Myrton, although it be common to all fresh water to freeze in Winter, yet the one half of this Loch doth never freeze at any time.
In the shire of Inverness: the Loch, called Loch Ness, and the river flowing from thence into the sea, doth never freeze: But by the contrary, in the coldest days of Winter, the Loch and river are both seen to smoke and reek, signifying unto us, that there is a Mine of Brimstone under it, of a hot quality.
In Carrick, are Kyne [cows], and Oxen, delicious to eat: but their fatness is of a wonderful temperature: that although the fatness of all other comestible beasts, for the ordinary use of man, do congeal with the cold air: by the contrary, the fatness of these beasts is perpetually liquid like oil.
The wood and Park of Cumbernauld, is replenished with Kyne and Oxen, and those at all times to this day, have been wild, and all of them of such a perfect wonderful whiteness, that there was never among all the huge number there, so much as the smallest black spot found to be upon one of their skins, horn, or clove.
In the Park of Holyrood house, are Foxes, and Hares, of a wonderful whiteness, in great number.
In Coyle, now called Kyle, is a rock, of the height of twelve foot, and as much of breadth, called the Deaf Craig, For although a man should cry never so loud, to his fellow, from the one side to the other, he is not heard, although he would make the noise of a gun.
In the country of Strathearn, a little above the old town of the Picts, called Abernethy, there is a marvellous Rock, called the Rock and stone, of a reasonable bigness, that if a man will push it with the least motion of his finger, it will move very lightly, but if he shall address his whole force, he profits nothing: which moves many people to be wonderful merry, when they consider such contrariety.
In Lennox, is a great Loch, called Loch Lomond, being of length 24 miles, in breadth eight miles, containing the number of thirty Isles. In this Loch are observed three wonderful things: One is, fishes very delectable to eat, that have no fins to move themselves withal, as other fishes do. The second, tempestuous waves and surges of the water, perpetually raging without winds, and that in time of greatest calms, in the faire pleasant time of Summer, when the air is quiet. The third is, One of these Isles, that is not corroborate nor united to the ground, but hath been perpetually loose: and although it be fertile of good grass, and replenished with Neat [cattle]; yet it moves by the waves of the water, and is transported sometimes towards one point, and otherwhiles toward another.
In Argyll, is a stone found in diverse parts, the which laid under straw or stubble, doth consume them to fire, by the great heat that it collects there.
In Buchan, at the castle of Slains is a cave, from the top whereof distils water, which within short time doth congeal to hard stones, white in colour. In this country are no Rottons [rats] seen at any time, although the land be wonderful fertile.
In Lothian, within two miles of Edinburgh, southward, is a well-spring, called, Saint Katherine’s well, which flows perpetually with a kind of black fatness, above the water: whereof Dioscorides makes mention. This fatness is called Bitumen aquis supernatans. It is thought to proceed of a fat mine of Coal, which is frequent in all Lothian, and specially of a sort of coal, called vulgarly the Parrot coal: For as soon as it is laid in the fire, it is so fat and gummy, that it renders an exceeding great light, dropping, frying, hissing, and making a great noise, with shedding and dividing it self in the fire, and of that marvellous nature, that as soon as it is laid in a quick fire, immediately it conceives a great flame, which is not common to any other sort of coal. This fatness is of a marvellous virtue: That as the coal, whereof it proceeds, is sudden to conceive fire and flame, so is this oil of a sudden operation, to heal all salt scabs and humours, that trouble the outward skin of man, wheresover it be, from the middle up, as commonly those of experience have observed. All scabs in the head, and hands, are quickly healed by the benefit of this oil, and it renders a marvellous sweet smell.
At Aberdeen is a well, of marvellous good quality to dissolve the stone [i.e., bladder stones], to expel sand from the reins and bladder, and good for the colic, being drunk in the Month of July, and a few days of August, little inferior in virtue to the renowned water of the Spa in Almanie [i.e., Germany].
In the North seas of Scotland, are great clogs [logs] of timber found, in the which, are marvellously engendered a sort of Geese, called Claik-geese [i.e., barnacle geese], and do hang by the beak, till they be of perfection; ofttimes found, and kept in admiration for their rare form of generation.
At Dumbarton, directly under the Castle, at the mouth of the river of Clyde, as it enters into the sea, there are a number of Claik-geese, black of colour, which in the night time do gather great quantity of the crops of the grass, growing upon the land, and carry the same to the sea. Then they assemble in a round, and with a wondrous curiosity, do offer everyone his own portion to the Sea-flood, and there attend upon the flowing of the tide, till the grass be purified from the fresh taste, and turned to the salt: and lest any part thereof should escape, they labour to hold it in, with labour of their nebs [beaks]. Thereafter orderly every fowl eats his portion. And this custom they observe perpetually. They are very fat, and very delicious to be eaten.
At this point, it seems, the writer ran out of marvels and wonders. I’m sure there are plenty more we could add to the list ourselves…